One Clear Message From The Mess That Is Italian Politics

Beppe Grillo's protest movement was the winner in Italy's election that signals a failure of an entire political class.

Beppe Grillo at a rally
Beppe Grillo at a rally
Mario Calabresi

TURIN - During these elections, all that's wrong with Italian politics in the last 20 years has finally caught up to us. The government’s relationship -- and lack of communication -- with the Italian people has led to an unprecedented height of pure electoral protest.

What's left, after Monday night's results, is a Parliament in which no alliance is capable of forming a majority necessary to rule.

One quarter of the voters chose Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which led an open rebellion of the citizens against both the "caste" priveleges of the political system, and the cuts and sacrifices the rest of the people were forced to make. Though the center-left coalition of Pierluigi Bersani finished first, followed by a resurgent Silvio Berlusconi, it is Grillo and his followers who are the only real winners of this election.

Italy expressed all of its collective malaise during this campaign, as the people suffering through the economic crisis -- the unemployed and working poor, those who feel overtaxed and others pondering emigration- - found new platforms for their voices to be heard.

The results of the ballot boxes show how badly both the government and its parties underestimated the social impact of the austerity measures. A lack of sensitivity and a perceived sense of distance from the politicians came across to the people, which ripened public anger in the face of demands for ever more sacrifices.

Monti’s decision to participate in the election, and the opposition of both majority parties to the policies of his government, didn’t give a meaning to the sacrifices the people had made, which are in fact necessary for Italy's economy to recover.

So much so that quickly, the country has chosen to discard the one who arrived as the anchor to Europe, the path to recovering credibility, the voice to make Italy heard again at the table of world affairs. And yet, Prime Minister Monti"s decisions cannot be forgotten: it is only thanks to the measures that he implemented that calamity was averted. And yes, from today, Italy has returned to a state of danger and an alarm bell of instability for all. (Stock markets across Europe tumbled early Tuesday on news of the Italian elections results)

Confronting the despair of the country was Beppe Grillo, who let every type of protest and source of rage be heard. Meanwhile, Berlusconi, was the most capable at intercepting the revolt against taxes and fiscal controls. Bersani relied too much on the results of the primaries, and subsequently lost the current that would have swept him to the parliamentary doors of the Palazzo Chigi without much effort.

End to obscurity

As the results of the elections are inconclusive, there is talk of a new election after the approval of a new electoral law, a prospective that seems both dramatic and unrealistic. In a system that is sinking fast into chaos, putting the pieces back into place will be a complicated and difficult effort. It is a task that requires much courage, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, both qualities lacking in Italian politics today.

To think that President Giorgio Napolitano has been insisting for years for a reform of the voting system, asking that the relationship between voters and their elected officials be re-established so that Italians might choose their own representatives and not be called upon only to ratify the choices of the parties. However, the short-sightedness of those who thought they had victory in hand prevailed.

Imagine now if the first act of this new Parliament was to agree on how to choose a new electoral law. Suspicion would arise immediately from the Italian people seeing a last, completely desperate move by the parties to save themselves. The revolt would rise again, this time even stronger.

Instead, there needs to be steps and decisions that are clear and courageous. Parliament needs to see possible meeting points in order to give urgent answers to its people, without yet another incomprehensible round of negotiations.

After this election, one thing is certain: every political step must be made with utter clarity, and with the objective of responding to the needs of the people. This new Parliament must find points of convergence, both among the traditional parties as well as with the new M5S members of Grillo's movement, who now exhibit their political inexperience and their purity as points of pride. They should be treated as a resource, not an enemy. Just like all the others, they represent the Italian people.

When politics is noble, it looks for solutions; and when it is efficient, it finds them. There is no more time for obscure games; that is the clear message Italians just sent from the voting booths.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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